It was 2012 or 2013 (I don’t remember the exact year anymore) and I was working a mundane nine-to-five, based out of San Diego at the time. September had rolled around, and along with it came the reduced crowds, beautiful weather, and last of the south angled ocean swells characteristic of this stretch of the West Coast during late summer/early fall. The Hurley Pro Trestles had just kicked off, and I craved the chance to get a firsthand look at a big-league surfing competition and, more importantly, an up-close view of Kelly Slater. I had been surfing for about ten years at the time and could be considered an intermediate-skilled surfer at best. But I knew enough to realize that surfers like Kelly Slater only come around once in a lifetime. I was eager to see someone who had improvised upon and perfected many of the skills that I had spent years so intently trying to learn after becoming obsessed with surfing. Being that Kelly was now in his forties, with an undetermined retirement date inevitably approaching, I hoped to witness a real life, globetrotting superman in professional action before it was too late.
Waking my roommate up around seven o’clock in the morning, I explained that I had called my boss and claimed I had a dentist appointment. At which point I also explained to him that we were getting in my truck and driving, in fact, north to Trestles surf break in south Orange County. My roommate at the time, a certified beach bum but not much of a surfer, in his nth year of nursing school and characteristically off for the day, quickly obliged when I told him there were sure to be scantily clad women abounding. And with that we were off. The car ride from San Diego to Trestles takes about an hour, up to two with traffic, but we had the carpool lane on our side on this particular morning and breezed right up the coast. When we reached the general vicinity of the competition, it quickly became apparent that despite the relatively early hour and the fact that it was a weekday, the place was already jam-packed. So, we headed the mile or so south to the overflow parking at San Onofre State Beach. I parked my truck, made sure it was locked, and we earnestly began the rugged early morning trek north up the beach to where the action was; iconic sandstone bluffs behind us and the long, rock cobble shoreline ahead of us. A beautiful blue ocean sat in a grand expanse to our left, with sets of waves lining up in the distance. I told my roommate we must hurry, and that we only had about an hour to burn if I was to return to my office (that now lay 50 miles south of us) by lunchtime and make my “dentist appointment” believable.
I will never forget the first time I saw Kelly Slater in real life. Well, it actually wasn’t Kelly that I saw first so much as it was the buckets of water spraying violently and beautifully, thrown upward off the face of a perfect, overhead right-hand wave and outward toward the horizon by a miniature board belonging to a figurine of a surfer far off in the distance. I picked up my pace and began practically jogging up the beach to get a better look. I told my roommate to hurry and keep up, that this might be a pro, and this might just be the competition in action. As I ran up the beach, and as the wave carried the unidentified surfer toward me, he was now coming into focus. Perfect carving form and swooping bottom turns. Back up to the lip of the wave, pop! More insane amounts of whitewater thrown into the air. Near completely inverted positioning on the snap turn and dramatic, immediate change of direction back into the gut of the wave. Repeat. I could see the white jersey now; I could hear the crowd cheering now. And then, like a human oasis in an oceanic desert, the bald head the world knows so well appeared before me. It was Kelly Slater. Grace and perfection and power and dominance, in the flesh. I stopped in my tracks. I stared in awe, in disbelief, in respect, and watched. Kelly’s heat must have lasted another twenty minutes at the most, but it seemed like an eternity. In the face of surfing perfection, all my cares, responsibilities, and worries vanished into the thin misty air of Southern California that morning.
As Kelly finished his heat to the roaring cheer of the fans gathered at Trestles, I worked my way through occupied beach towels and umbrellas, trying to gauge the exact location of his pending exit point. I watched him paddle in toward shore with his signature slow but steady, strong yet graceful paddling ability that had carried him across so many of the earth’s salty waters before. Kelly finally reached the cobblestone beach, stood and smiled, and began jogging up the sand toward the grandstand. I was waiting near the giant structure; I had seen the reporters preparing their cameras and microphones for the legend and had anticipated where to stand for the best view. The moment Kelly jogged past me I wondered in astonishment. How could this man, who had been so much larger than life to me, be merely the size of my mortal self in reality?! My eyes, as well as everyone else’s, were fixated on one legendary figure for the next five minutes. We all watched him as he gave the post-heat interview, watched as he signed a couple autographs, and watched as he disappeared backstage.
My roommate and I, not as hysterically as before with the legend now behind the curtain, observed a couple more heats. I told him I could probably get away with one more hour at the competition before it was time to head home from my “dentist appointment.” But the entire time we sat and watched I couldn’t shake the feeling of being in the immediate presence of a legend just moments before. We finally stood and retreated, neither of us – not even my surf-ignorant roommate – wanting to leave behind the small slice of utopia we’d discovered that morning. The mile walk back to the parking lot was bittersweet. I remember moments of looking back, looking out to the ocean’s horizon, trying to imagine what it must be like to spend one’s life, and spend one’s life getting paid chasing Mother Earth’s energy, manifested as moving hills and valleys on the surface of the sea. Then I began to wonder what it must be like, what it must feel like, to dominate the field for not one year, not five years, not one decade, but decades. I snapped out of my surf-inspired daydream. We had finally reached my truck. My roommate waited patiently at the passenger side door. I fumbled in my pockets. Several moments passed. “Kyle…” I half whispered in a slow, defeated tone. “Yes Travis?” my roommate replied. I paused and sighed. “Kyle, I lost my keys.”